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Eva Taylor’s “Tattoos”—The Atlas of the “I”

By Olivia E. Sears

Olivia E. Sears’s translations of three poems from Eva Taylor’s “Tattoos” series appeared in the September 2016 issue: There Is No Map: The New Italian(s).

I have two mouths
from one I speak
from the other I bleed.                                   

—from “Prima igiene, 22” in “Igiene della bocca” (2006)

Eva Taylor might best be described as a linguistic refugee. A German immigrant living in Italy, she has made Italian her first literary language—the first station on her journey toward authentic self-expression.

As a writer, Taylor initially fled her mother tongue because of its historical-cultural weight, describing the German language’s heredity as a contradiction arising “between the beauty and extraordinary lightness of Heinrich Heine’s poems, and the voices of those who ordered and then built a wall to divide the country.”

Born a short distance from the border fences and guard towers in the former East Germany, she recognizes that it wasn’t the language itself, but the abuse of the language that she felt keenly as “pain” in her mouth. Her second language, Italian, became her first language of expression, allowing her to confront difficult moments of her own “German” past (and Germany’s past) by changing language and form: she began to narrate in lyric form from the outside perspective of Italian. Later, by creating new words in German, and thus new images, and allowing them to migrate into her Italian poems, she fostered linguistic contact within the poems themselves. And this contact ultimately led to her return to German as an expressive language. She has since published two volumes of poetry in German.

Given that she is a multilingual poet and a translator herself, it is not surprising that much of her work circles around failures of communication and expression—not to mention translation.

That may sound fairly cerebral, but Taylor’s work, as one critic describes it, is poesia di carne, non di carta: poetry of flesh, not paper. The carnality of Taylor’s work has been compared to that of other Nordic artists (the gaunt forms of Egon Schiele, the anatomies of Lucien Freud, etc.) and this comes across throughout the “Tattoos” series featured in Words without Borders.

Taylor’s work . . . is poesia di carne, non di carta: poetry of flesh, not paper.

Her luridly graphic first book, Igiene della bocca (Hygiene of the Mouth), was born from an encounter with a specialized text on orthodontic pathologies in her dentist’s waiting room. Struck by the unfamiliar lexicon, she says she was inspired to find names for other pathologies—especially those of the tongue, or lingua (also the word for “language” in Italian).

In the series “Tattoos” (from her second book), her gaze falls on the skin as an “experiential surface,” as the atlas of the “I.” Here the poems reflect her particular linguistic constellation: the English she speaks on a daily basis in the section title (“Tattoos”); her mother tongue in the invented German words that serve as titles of individual poems; and in the writing of the texts themselves, her adoptive Italian. That melding of languages undergirds her images of biological transformation and gives them additional weight and complexity.

In the opening poem from this series (not included in WWB), the speaker states that she bought a new skin so she would hear less of that “creaking / a vague disturbance / between me and me.” There follow two other poems in the series—“Zelthaut” (tentskin) and “La/eibkleid” (bodydress)—that address how we experience living in our own skin: often constrained, scarred, restless, marked, inked.

In the subsequent poem, “Kleidleid” (sufferingdress), she writes, “I wanted to exhale / another me” and be resewn “on the next page.” Bursting out of the skin of suffering, breaking the binding of pages that write her past, she is free to be rewritten, resewn—not by some god, but by hands, breath of skin, needle of letters—work, words, and pain.

The series ends with the poem “Ekdysis” (ecdysis in English), from the ancient Greek for “strip off.” Ecdysis is the process of sloughing off the old skin (or exoskeleton) for the purpose of growth or change in shape—to allow the animal to grow larger, beyond the constraints of its previous shell or skin, and to allow for regeneration.

In Taylor’s work, the word is the locus of identity—an identity always shifting and unstable, just like words for someone living between languages. The work is to construct a new skin that fits, a new language, or a personal lexicon of many languages.

The work is to construct a new skin that fits, a new language, or a personal lexicon of many languages.

Taylor has suggested that the identity of the German language itself is shifting through its intense contact with Turkish, Russian, and Italian migrants (and, of course, the ever-present English of business and media). The influx of refugees from Syria and elsewhere will only intensify this process. Perhaps a diversity of linguistic contact is precisely how a language is renewed, and maybe a new literature will be born from this constellation, full of new words, new images, new perspectives.

Ultimately, as an emigré, Taylor herself has contributed to the German language by creating new words and images for her Italian poems. Now that these poems have entered the English language, they have introduced new phrases and images to English as well.

And yet there’s great irony in translating Taylor’s linguistically and culturally interwoven work into American English because, at this particular moment in history, this is the language being used to denigrate immigrants, to create fear of other races and religions, even to marginalize Americans with names that sound unfamiliar.

And this is the language being used, of course, to threaten to build a wall. 

Published Oct 10, 2016   Copyright 2016 Olivia E. Sears

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